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Fukushima Update: Why We Should (Still) Be Worried

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By Karen Charman, WhoWhatWhy.com

After the catastrophic trifecta of the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan last March—what the Japanese are referring to as  their 3/11 —you would think the Japanese government would be doing everything in its power to contain the disaster. You would be wrong—dead wrong.

Instead of collecting, isolating, and guarding the millions of tons of radioactive rubble that resulted from the chain reaction of the 9.0 earthquake, the subsequent 45- to 50-foot wall of water that swamped the plant and disabled the cooling systems for the reactors, and the ensuing meltdowns, Japanese Environment Minister Goshi Hosono says that the entire country must  share Fukushima’s plight by accepting debris from the disaster.

The tsunami left an  estimated 20 million tons of wreckage on the land, much of which—now ten months after the start of the disaster—is  festering in stinking piles throughout the stricken region. (Up to 20 million more tons of rubble from the disaster—estimated to cover an area approximately the size of California—is also circulating in the Pacific .) The enormous volume of waste is much more than the disaster areas can handle. So, in an apparent attempt to return this region to some semblance of normal life, the plan is to spread out the waste to as many communities across the country as will take it.

At the end of September, Tokyo signed an agreement to accept  500,000 metric tons of rubble from Iwate Prefecture , one of eight prefectures designated for cleanup under a  new nuclear decontamination law passed on January 1. The law allows for much of the radioactively contaminated rubble to be incinerated, a practice that has been underway at least since the  end of June .

But the sheer amount of radioactive rubble is proving difficult to process. The municipal government of Kashiwa, in Chiba Prefecture  to the west and south of Tokyo , recently shut down one of its main incinerators, because it can’t store any more than the  200 metric tons of radioactive ash it already has that is too contaminated to bury in a landfill.

According to the California-based Fukushima Fallout Awareness Network (FFAN), burning Fukushima’s radioactive rubble is the worst possible way to deal with the problem. That’s because incinerating it releases much more radioactivity into the air, not only magnifying the contamination all over Japan but also sending it up into the jet stream. Once in the jet stream, the radioactive particles travel across the Northern Hemisphere, coming back down to earth with rain, snow, or other precipitation. Five days after the Fukushima meltdowns began, radioactive fallout from the disaster reached the West Coast of the United States . Approximately a week later, Fukushima  fallout was measured as far away as France .

In October, the journal  Nature reported that the Japanese government’s initial estimates of radiation from Fukushima were substantially less than what Scandinavian researchers calculated from a global network of radiation monitoring stations that the Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization uses to detect nuclear weapons tests.

Radiation used to be a word that evoked serious concern in a lot of people. However, the nuclear industry and its supporters have done a masterful job in allaying public fears about it. They do this in significant part by relying on outdated and highly questionable data collected on Japanese atom bomb survivors, while at the same time ignoring and dismissing inconvenient but much more relevant evidence that shows the actual harmful effects of radiation exposure from nuclear accidents. Author Gayle Greene explains this well in a recent article  here. In their attempt to win the public over to their viewpoint, nuclear proponents even trot out the dubious theory of radiation hormesis , which says that low doses of radiation are actually good for you, because they stimulate an immune response. Well, so does something that causes an allergic reaction. But I digress…